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Something I have struggled with, and continuously struggle with, is using the correct terminology for different circumstances. I am currently doing a lot of research on the term “special needs”; what does this really mean? Terminology etiquette for “special needs students” is ever changing. We have come a long way from using objectifying terms, and society is always looking to be politically correct in order to properly encompass everyone’s’ needs. Every website and person you ask may have a completely different answer. In this case, who’s right?

In terms of people with physical disabilities, the World Health Organization has two definitions:

  1. Activity limitations, in which the individual has difficulty performing a task or action
  2. Participation restrictions, in which the individual has restrictions in their involvement within an activity

According to Brown University, and something I personally agree with as well, is to remove the article “the” when describing someone. For example, we should not say “the blind”. Instead, we should be saying “people who are blind”. Also, when referring to people without a disability, we should not refer to them as normal in comparison.

According to the Global Down Syndrome Organization, “intellectually and developmentally disabled (IDD)” are the replacements for more old-school terms that we don’t use anymore. Other terms that most organizations are still using are “cognitive disability”, “intellectual disability” and “developmental disability”.

So where does “special needs” fit in to all of this? It can cover a wide range of terms and definitions; it seems too broad, yet fitting in different circumstances at the same time.

There are mixed reviews when it comes to using the term “special needs”; some people are for it, and others are against it. Some say that we should be strictly using the terms mentioned above (IDD and WHO) as it is too broad of a term. Also, they make the point that everyone has a special need; a child who is blind has a special need, as does the child who is not blind- their needs are just different. There is also the issue that those with special needs are strictly the needs of IDD (intellectual, cognitive and developmental). However, what about those with physical disabilities? Does this also fit into the notion of “special needs”?

I looked up the term “special education”, and was given this definition (keep in mind that I do know Wikipedia may not be the most reliable source, however this term made an interesting point):

“A special school is a school catering for students who have special educational needs due to severe learning difficulties, physical disabilities or behavioural problems. Special schools may be specifically designed, staffed and resourced to provide appropriate special education for children with additional needs.”

In this definition, they define special educational needs as those with physical disabilities, severe learning difficulties and behavioural problems. What constitutes a severe learning difficulty? What does it say for the students who may not have a severe difficulty, but a difficulty nonetheless? What about ‘special education’ that is in an integrated classroom? Of course, the term “special needs” is not always considered politically incorrect. There are still many people who use “child with special needs”; this is used individually and in school settings.

Terminology etiquette is forever changing, and will continuously do so in the future. I believe it is important to stay up to date with these changes in order to effectively meet the needs of everyone.